|Posted on November 3, 2013 at 8:30 AM|
History, when placed in the wrong hands, can be very dangerous. Dictators, for example, realise the extreme power that history has in the support and justification of their cause. Consequently they can rewrite, deny or destroy the events or claims of the past which threaten their current authority. The Chinese dictator Mao Zedong is a prime example of this. As a powerful leader, he wanted to ‘brainwash’ the people of China in order to create and sustain a communist nation. By destroying all historical artefacts and memories that may have reminded the Chinese people of the past, Zedong attempted to ensure that nothing would prevent from him from remodeling them into a new Communist people. Hitler also used his own distorted version of history to justify the horrific persecution of the Jewish race, rewriting their history to present every Jew as inferior and avaricious.
When the history of a country is altered or key events are purposefully missed out, the knowledge of the respective nation is limited, and this has two major impacts. Firstly it results in a dangerous ignorance. The people of a nation are no longer able to contribute effectively to the development of society, passing on false accounts of the past. This fuels the second major impact, national isolation. A nation grounded in an inaccurate recollection of history cannot relate to the history of others, where society has learnt from the mistakes of the past and has flourished into a healthy and thriving democratic country. In present day dictatorships, such as North Korea, historical and political information is censored so that support for the state may remain strong.
However, it is also important when looking back at history that we do not become over influenced by the past. An over sensitivity to what happened in the past can prevent people from acting rationally in the present. The situation in Syria today is an example of how past events can become too powerful an influence in rational decisions that need to be made in the present. The UK government continues to stand by as Syria bombs hundreds of innocent men, women and children in their own country. In the fear that a situation similar to the 2003 invasion of Iraq will arise, the UK fails to intervene.
Acceptance of responsibility and the act of repentance can be healthy for those societies struggling to deal with past horrors. In South Africa, with the ending of apartheid, public figures, both black and white, began to talk about how to move on without allowing the past to tear society apart. The introduction of acts such as the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation, aided this. It strived to bring the evils of apartheid into the open and hear the tragic stories of both victims and perpetrators. Though not all wounds were healed, it became a significant and invaluable step towards a united Africa. However if we spend too long tampering with history through apologies and repentance, the danger is we do not pay enough attention to the both domestic and global problems we currently face.
Unfortunately history is often used to label or abase certain people, races and countries. Even today, nations, races and ethnic minorities are unjustly marginalized on the basis of events and claims of the past. For centuries arbitrary stories and conspiracies against the Jews have attached a negative stigma to their race in order to perpetrate hatred towards them. As history testifies, millions of Jews have been subsequently persecuted, tortured and killed over false claims and stigmas throughout history, most infamously by Nazi Germany. Though the Holocaust took place nearly three generations ago, there is a global prejudice against Germans in light of the events of World War 2.
History itself shows us the crucial importance of individuals and nations alike to have an understanding and knowledge of the past. Unfortunately, it can also be a cause of inaction and irrational decisions in the present, and when in the wrong hands it can be used as a weapon to distort, brainwash and discriminate against people. We must strike the right balance. And perhaps, with caution, we should draw on history to do. The famous Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, once said: “In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind."